Monday, June 30, 2008

Cthulhu Recap(s)

This is a two-for-one Cthulhu recap post. First, my review of the movie of the same name and second, in keeping with the quote I've stuck up under my blog's title, I'm going to chat a bit about the Call of Cthulhu game I ran this weekend.

Cthulhu
Des has already written an excellent review, complete with nifty film stills, that examines the film's deeper implications on a couple levels. There will be no such introspection here! Instead I'm going to discuss the film's merits from the perspectives of a fan of horror movies and as a gamer.

As a horror film Cthulhu succeeds admirably, and has perhaps the most effective treatment I've yet seen of Lovecraftian horror. The trouble with adopting ol' H. P. to the big screen has been that he tends to describe his monsters as, well, indescribable. How do you depict, say, a color that doesn't exist on the normal spectrum?

Well, that particular conundrum may never be solved, but the makers of Cthulhu took great care to keep their particular horrors the things of half-glimpsed nightmares. There are briefly illuminated glimpses of strange sights seen in flashing headlights or the pop of flashbulbs (in a particularly effective sequence that caused several audience members to walk out of the theater, presumably due to claustrophobic issues). Strange tentacles lurk at the very periphery of the frame, and you find yourself straining to see what the protagonist sees before he passes out.

The film is an adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which has been adapted to film before by Brian Yuzna in the movie Dagon. I had mixed feelings when I first saw Dagon. I thought the first half was quite effective, and it did an excellent job of depicting one of my favorite Lovecraft sequences of all time, the first night at the hotel, and the chase through the hotel rooms, our hero being pursued by a faceless mob. But Dagon soon descended into cheap splatter horror, becoming more focused on gore and naked breasts than on chills. Not very Lovecraftian. Cthulhu maintains, and even builds upon, its creepy atmosphere throughout the whole movie.

One thing I will fault both movies for however: apparently it's really hard to find someone who can do a "crazy old sailor" character effectively. At least in Cthulhu you could understand the actor, but in both movies they tend to, shall we say, chew the scenery just a tad too much.

From a gaming perspective, Cthulhu is an excellent example of how to run a modern-day or Cthulhu-punk scenario (the movie itself seems to be set in the near future, perhaps 5-10 years from now). The writer did an excellent job of taking today's concerns (terrorism, global warming, loss of personal freedoms) and tying them into the nihilism of Lovecraft's dark and uncaring cosmos. It's also a fine example of effective pacing, with steadily mounting creep-outs and disturbing sights that any horror GM would be well-advised to study closely.

The One-Shot
So this weekend I sat down to run a Call of Cthulhu scenario for Des. I brought out an old favorite, "The Menace from Sumatra" from Dark Designs. The Gaslight period is probably my favorite period for horror gaming; combine that with virulent alien fungi and you've got a winning scenario.

Now, I picked up Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu when it came out, but I have yet to run anything with it. I'd be interested in running "The Menace" using Trail and comparing it to how things went this weekend using the old rules (I'm pretty sure the scenario could be shifted to 1930s San Francisco with little alteration).

The reason for this is because Des's character died a terrible, terrible death. This was partly my fault, as I neglected to dangle a juicy enough hook for her bookish professor character to latch onto--I'll be honest, I've grown lazy as a CoC Keeper thanks to the last half-dozen or so characters featured in my games being either private eyes, journalists, or psychic investigators; they tend to be fairly proactive when going after supernatural weirdness. The other reason Des's professor met a grizly, fungus-infested end was because of a lack of clues being found and leads drying up.

Trail of Cthulhu aims to solve both those classic CoC bugbears: all Investigators start with a Drive that provides a reason to stick their noses into supernatural horror, and clues are generally dispensed free of charge, no roll necessary--it's what the Investigators do with the clues that forms the meat of the Trail of Cthulhu philosophy.

In a way, comparing Trail to Call is like comparing D&D4e to 1e. In essence, our session this weekend traced the sad fate of a victim of the blue fungus, like we were examining a hapless victim NPC in-depth. We could easily go back with a fresh character, perhaps a relative of the poor professor, and continue the investigation. In that sense, the old school CoC rules emphasize the world over the characters, much as old school D&D/AD&D did. It's like having your 1st-level fighter go off to the dungeon, get killed by a hail of goblin arrows, then rolling up the fighter's brother and heading back. Trail is much like the latest generation of games that set the protagonist as the central element of the story. It's not about matching wits with a cold, uncaring system, but rather the system helping you at least get a fair way into the scenario. Now, don't get me wrong--Trail appears to be as faithful to Lovecraft's vision as Call. It's just that Trail seems to say, "Hey, let's at least try and get the PCs to the Big Bad at the end before blasting their health and sanity."

Which one is "better" is, of course, a matter of personal taste. I can see Trail as being less frustrating, and for that I want to give it a try. But we may find the simple old school brutality of Call to be more to our liking. We shall see.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Media Influences

So... I challenge the role-playing blogosphere (and I know you are reading... :P) to name the primary influences in your personal game, so we get a flavor not of what set of rules you decide to use, but what kind of game people can expect to play with you! Minimum five. No maximum. Plus include what people might assume influences you that you actually reject. Bonus points for detail and explanation!
And with those words, the gauntlet was hurled down...

I'm going to go more or less chronologically; since my gaming interests are so diverse, I won't focus on any one genre of inspiration, but rather focus on the high points. Perhaps in a future post I'll address specific inspirations for specific genres.

Lone Wolf

No, not the manga, but rather that series of "choose your own adventure" game books. Yeah, I read CYOA, and the Endless Quest books, and even a book based on the Zork computer game, but Lone Wolf really captured my imagination in a way those other books hadn't.

I consider my first experience as a GM to be when, during recess and lunch breaks, I would sit with a friend and read aloud from a Lone Wolf book, letting him make the choices at the end of each section but taking care of the combats (which relied on closing your eyes and letting your pencil drop on a "Random Number Table"--I didn't know about d10s yet) myself.

I think what primarily drew me in was the rich setting and Joe Dever's use of language. To this day I find myself mirroring some of his phrasing whenever I'm describing a scene in-game. And I really feel that my interest in and emphasis on creating a feeling of a vibrant setting and on character interaction goes all the way back to reading those books.

A few years ago the entire Lone Wolf series began to be digitized and put up on the web. Whether you're an old fan or a neophyte, you should mosey over to Project Aon and spend an hour or two reading through the first few books. They're a great idea mine, at the very least.

(Incidentally, the Lone Wolf setting--Magnamund--is my own Holy Grail in terms of running a campaign with the "right" system. Going back to trying to adapt it to 2nd edition AD&D. Yes, I own the Mongoose version...and I've run it precisely once. It just didn't do anything for me. Current contenders for ideal system would be either Warhammer FRP or Burning Wheel, which both have that gritty, quasi-medieval feel that the setting requires.)

The Wargames West Catalog

I was ruined for all future game store experiences from the very beginning. I bought the Mentzer Basic Set at Wargames West, an Albuquerque game store that was also a major distributor and mail-order retailer back in the day. Part of my memory is, of course, affected by my age and inexperience, but my memory of Wargames West is of this amazing, labyrnthine Valhalla of gaming. I lived in Santa Fe, an hour away, but every time my dad would drive out to Albuquerque to visit friends I'd hitch a ride with him and wheedle out a stop at Wargames West.

When we moved to Los Angeles a couple years later I made sure I was on the Wargames West catalog mailing list. That catalog, printed with cheap newsprint paper and smudgy ink, was my own version of the Internet back before I'd even heard of such a thing outside the confines of Cyberpunk 2020. (In fact, I ordered my copy of CP through the Wargames West catalog!)

What made the catalog great was that about half or more of the products had little write-ups, either a description or a rave review if the game was a staff favorite. I used to pore through the product descriptions, familiarizing myself with all the different games out there, ogling the funny-looking dice, and coveting the miniatures (each of which had a picture, which is more than you can say for a lot of retail web sites these days--even if the pictures were often to blurry to really make out more than a vaguely humanoid-shaped mass).

I can safely say that my immersion in gaming as a hobby rather than simply as a past-time is traceable directly to the Wargames West catalog. Without it, I wouldn't be writing this blog today, that's for sure.

I continued to order from the catalog (I still remember the number: 1-800-SAY-GAME) for several years, but I gradually began patronizing my own LGS (I leave off the "friendly" because, well, they weren't) and then the Internet came along. (For those keeping track at home, my first online RPG-related purchase was the Planescape boxed set, acquired with an Amazon.com gift card my uncle gave me for Christmas.)

Meanwhile, Wargames West was atrophying. The storefront and the distributor-half became two separate entities. I think the last thing I ordered from the Catalog was some M:tG booster packs ("Ice Age," I think...). And then I stopped receiving the catalog all-together. I found out years later about the collapse of the distributor; the last time I visited the store as about 10 years ago on a visit back to New Mexico. They had revamped it and redecorated it. It looked a lot cleaner, but it also felt more generic. It wasn't the same store.

Last March I was back in New Mexico again for the first time in 10 years. I looked up Wargames West and found that it's no longer there. No matter--its glory days were long past anyway. I just wish I'd held on to one of the catalogs, just for old time's sake...

Roger E. Moore's Editorials

I came into Dragon Magazine during the tenure of Roger E. Moore as editor, and that's primarily how I know him. One of the real treats for me back in the day was reading Moore's editorials. He had a talent for telling you about his game, or his philosophies, or what have you, in a way that was both entertaining and inspirational. I can think of several editorials off the top of my head that I immediately incorporated into my own gaming: adventure ideas (like using Poe's "The Maelstrom" as inspiration for a scenario), incorporating PC-NPC romances, and just remembering to keep the "fun" in the game.

I've copied out three of my favorites and posted them. I should add some more.

The "Verix Dwarfstomper" article, in particular, had a huge impact on not just me but my whole group. My friend Alex practically based his gaming on that article's teachings from that point on and we still quote the line about "Sarth the Bastard:"
...a detailed account of the “Rumble on Luna,” in which Snowy Humber, his ape-friend Joe, and a few other luminaries killed the second-to-last avatar of the villainous Sarth the Bastard (those avatars were the pits, each one worse than the one before)...
To me that quote right there is just so evocative of everything that's great about gaming.

Led Zeppelin
I've never smoked a joint in my life, but for about 3-4 years during my adolescence I listened to more Zeppelin than even the most ardent and devoted stoner. There are several Zep songs ("Gallows Pole," "Battle of Evermore," "Ramble On," "Immigrant Song") that have a direct fantasy/medieval connection, and have no doubt inspired many gamers in the past. But because my Zep mania coincided with the period where my group was playing the fuck out of D&D, almost all the songs tended to inspire my gaming, at least indirectly. Nowadays I look back and think, "How did I ever manage to associate 'Down by the Seaside' or 'In My Time of Dying' with D&D?" But there you go. It was an influence once, and it resonates still, if only with somewhat less of the adolescent ardor it once did.

John Carpenter's 1980s ouvre
This has been mentioned already in a couple other of these posts, including the original, but I feel it bears mentioning again here, if for no other reason than I think Carpenter's 80s movies are the quintessential gamer movies and yet seem to go largely unacknowledged. Perhaps it's just taken as a given?

In particular, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live continue to enjoy repeated viewings around my apartment, the former because it is an RPG writ large on the silver screen, the latter because I think everyone should pattern a character after Rowdy Roddy Piper at some point in their lives. And that fist-fight in the alley strikes me as what a combat based on hit points would end up looking like in real life.

The Sword
I've really been getting into the whole "70s hard rock revival" sound that's been goin' down these last couple years, and The Sword is by far my favorite discovery. Lots of music has indirectly influenced my gaming over the years (see above), but The Sword is the first band to directly speak to my FRPG yearnings. I mean, literally. Check it out:


I mean, that shit just makes me want to go out and play some old fashioned, pulp-fantasy D&D, you know? Like, dust off my Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set and just go to it. They take a lot of inspiration from the Song of Ice and Fire series, but you just gotta love a band that puts out a song called "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians".

Edit: well, I was trying to keep it succinct, but I keep thinking of a few more, so I'll throw in an "honorable mentions" section:

  • R. E. Howard: I came into RPGs before I read any fantasy or sci-fi literature (outside of The Hobbit, that is. Howard's Conan stories, which I found in paperback at the library I used to pass on my way home from school and would occassionally stop to use the bathroom of, were my first exposure to fantasy lit, and it blew me away. I know I share that sentiment with a lot of gamers out there, so I'll leave it at that.
  • Excalibur: I first saw this film in its editied-for-TV version when I was about 9 and it rocked my world. Stuff like this movie, more than fantasy literature, is what inspired me to check out D&D (well, that and the D&D cartoon series...). Unlike the D&D cartoon series, Excalibur continues to influence me today (see my Pendragon post for evidence). Funny story: a couple years later I saw the movie at a video rental store and had my folks rent it for me. I guess they didn't think a movie about King Arthur could be rated R...and I didn't realize the version I'd already seen had been, uh, edited for content. Yeah... Awkward...
  • Larry Elmore: I've posted about my Elmore fetish before, but it just bears repeating here: this guy is such an inluence on my gaming, I have based characters off of his paintings.

...and what doesn't do it for me...
H. P. Lovecraft
I love Lovecraft. And Call of Cthulhu has provided countless hours of gaming goodness. But I can't really say that Lovecraft has been much of an influence on my gaming. My favorite periods for CoC are Gaslight and Dark Ages, hardly canonical stuff. And the adventures I do run tend to downplay cosmic horror in favor of personal horror. I'm actually trying to incorporate more of his Dunsany-inspired fantasy into my FRPG campaigns, but that is a recent development.

Computer RPGs
Unlike Lovecraft, I have no appreciation of computer RPGs, much less claiming them as an influence. I've never been into them. The payoff, for me, was never worth the hours of investment required, especially after I got into table-top RPGing. To me, when faced with the choice between using your own creativity to come up with a story, or passively participating in someone else's creative vision, it's a no-brainer. I don't care how good the graphics are.

My dislike of CRPGs has only increased in recent years, as I have found myself in the minority among my gaming friends, who were enthusiastic fans of CRPGs going all the way back to the likes of Phantasy Star and Castlevania and who all eagerly bought into MMORPGs to the point of largely marginializing table-top gaming.


Anime
Like Lovecraft, anime is something that I've enjoyed on its own merits (and in fairly limited doses, mostly centering on the work of Hiyao Miyazaki) but that's not really influenced my gaming. And like Lovecraft, that's something I've toyed with chaging, but that hasn't really gotten off the ground yet. That's part of the reason I'm pursuing my Uresia/D&D hack so enthusiastically.

Speaking of which, between my ambivalence over anime and my outright dislike of CRPGs, Uresia would seem to be an unlikely choice for me. But that's one of the reasons I like it; it's fresh (for me) and it lets me play around with the conventions of the two genres in a format that I'm comfortable with. Because, I'll be honest, some of the sillier tropes of CRPGs actually appeal to me.

The Evil Dead Trilogy
My friend Alex turned me on to the works of Sam Raimi back when he was still relatively obscure. I turned him on to the Cohen Brothers. I call it even. At any rate, I love me the Evil Dead movies; they each stand firmly in their own little niches (horror, comedy-horror, comedy, respectively) yet are connected by an overarching story arc. Much like a campaign that starts out one way and evolves into something else. Yet I can't really identify any overt influences on my gaming that come from these movies.

I mention them here in particular, since if Alex had a blog they would be at the top of his influences (right before that "Verix Dwarfstomper" essay). You know how some people always play a ninja or a cleric or dual-sword-wielding badass, no matter what the game and genre? I think basically every character he's played in the last 10 years has been some variation on Ash. Now that's a media influence!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Checking In; and: "Sometimes An Idea is TOO Obvious"

Hello campers. Not sure where the last week went, but that does happen at times. I'm a writer by trade, and sometimes I'm just all "written out," even with the fun writing.

But! I've got plenty I want to write about (including my review of Cthulhu and my media influences), so several posts are in the chute, as it were.

For starters, I thought I'd post about a little something that I came across in the latest update of Pyramid (which, if you're not subscribed to you most certainly should be, if only for the "Suppressed Transmission" column).

At any rate, one of the articles this week discussed creating a list of notable NPCs to hand out to your players at the beginning of a campaign. It's a brilliant article and an idea so simple and useful that it's never actually occurred to me to do it before.

The gyst of the article is that by listing and describing the movers, shakers, celebrities, and legendary figures of your campaign setting (but not too many, mind you--the article goes into the "don'ts" as well as the "dos"), you not only create a sense of a real-life, living, breathing world, but you offer your players plenty of hooks to hang their backgrounds on and give yourself ammunition for stunning revelations down the road, so that when you bring in your legendary assassin par-excellance you get gasps of recognition, rather than the famous player retort of "if this guy's so infamous, how come we never heard of him?"

I'm going to immediately implement this idea for my ongoing Pendragon campaign, listing the various knights and other famous individuals and their clan/group affiliations. This should help play immensely, as it can be hard to keep our Sir Dodinas le Sauvages and our Sir Sagremore le Desirous's separate) And this will be a mandatory hand-out for all my future campaigns, and possibly even one-shots.

Speaking of one-shots, after getting a good dose of Lovecraft last weekend I think I'll trot out a favorite old Gaslight adventure for Des this Saturday. Should be fun!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cthulhu

Last night my girlfriend Des and I went to see a screening of a new Lovecraft film, entitled simply Cthulhu. We both quite enjoyed it; she wrote a review of it, posted here. I may write a review of my own, from a literary/gaming perspective, in the next day or two.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Uresian Magic

It's a funny thing; sometimes you find yourself wondering how you're going to start a project, then you go back through your notes and discover you've already done about half the work already!

Thus it was with my Uresian magic conversion. I'd quite forgotten that I'd already picked up a train of thought that balances RCD&D simplicity with the specialized nature of Uresian magic. And it fits in nicely with my "Frankensteinian approach" to designing classes: cut up and reassemble the existing parts of the system as you see fit.

My inspiration came from a thread over on the RPG.net Forums entitled "101 Days of the Rules Cyclopedia". Out of the glut of "101 Days" threads that enjoyed a brief vogue not too long ago, this was the one I found most enjoyable. And it had a genuine nugget of inspiration contained within: a re-worked spell list for the Elf class.

Essentially, this was an attempt to make Elf magic a little more distinct, more "Elvish", by taking Druid spells and Cleric spells and kicking out the M-U spells that just didn't seem to fit. This was the result:

Level 1

Detect Danger (D1)
Detect Magic (M1)
Faerie Fire (D1)
Light (C1)
Locate (D1)
Predict Weather (D1)
Resist Cold (C1)
Speak with Animals (C2)
Sleep (M1)
Ventriloquism (M1)

Level 2

Charm Person (M1)
Continual Light (M2)
Entangle (M2)
Levitate (M2)
Mirror Image (M2)
Obscure (D2)
Phantasmal Force (M2)
Produce Fire (D2)
Speak with Plants (C4)
Warp Wood (D2)

Level 3

Call Lightning (D3)
Dance (M8) (Victim gets save to resist; duration of 1 round/5 levels.)
Growth of Animal (C3)
Hold Animal (D3)
Invisibility (M2)
Plant Door (D4)
Protection From Poison (D3)
Water Breathing (D3)
Clothform (M4) (Grows and weaves leaves of local plants into desired form.)

Level 4

Charm Monster (M4)
Confusion (M4)
Control Temperature, 10' Radius (D4)
Create Water (C4) (Only usable in forested area.)
Growth of Plants (M4)
Hallucinatory Terrain (M4)
Massmorph (M4)
Protection from Lightning (D4)
Summon Animals (D4)
Woodform (M5) (Grows and weaves trees into desired form.)

Level 5

Anti-Plant Shell (D5)
Control Winds (D5)
Create Food (C5) (Only usable in forested area.)
Dissolve (D5)
Insect Plague (C5)
Pass Plant (D5)
Projected Image (M6)
Truesight (C5)

Level 6

Animate Forest (As Animate Objects, except that it only works on living plants.)
Anti-Animal Shell (D6)
Find the Path (C6)
Geas (M6)
Lower Water (M6)
Move Earth (M6)
Reincarnation (M6)
Summon Weather (D6)
Transport through Plants (D6)
Turn Wood (D6)
Weather Control (M6)

Level 7

Creeping Doom (D7)
Earthquake (C7)
Lore (M7)
Mass Charm (M8)
Mass Invisibility (M7)
Metal to Wood (D7)
Restore (C7, not reversible)
Summon Elemental (D7)
Survival (C7)

Notice that certain spells had their descriptions slightly tweaked to match their new Elven masters. I like that.

Now, needless to say, the Elves in my Uresia campaign will be utilizing that modified spell list. Well, except for the Dundralin, a special class of Elves that are basically wuxia-style Elf wizard/monks. They use a specialized spell list that has a much smaller selection of spells, reflecting the source of their power (let's just say it's the wild side of nature and leave it at that--don't want to give away any setting spoilers here!). It looks a little something like this:

DUNDRALIN SPELL LIST

Dundralin do not require spell books. They select and cast spells in the same manner as Clerics.

Level 1
Detect Danger (D1)
Speak with Animals (C2)
Sleep (M1)

Level 2
Entangle (M2)
Levitate (M2)
Obscure (D2)

Level 3
Growth of Animal (C3)
Invisibility (M2)
Hold Animal (D3)

Level 4
Charm Monster (M4)
Confusion (M4)
Summon Animals (D4)

Level 5
Dissolve (D5)
Insect Plague (C5)
Pass Plant (D5)

Level 6
Animate Forest (As Animate Objects, except that it only works on living plants.)
Create Normal Animals (C6)
Find the Path (C6)

Level 7
Creeping Doom (D7)
Ironform (M7)
Summon Elemental (Earth only)

For a more conventional spell-casting class, let's look at the Boru Sorcerer's spell list. The Sorcerers of Boru cast their magic through dancing and the liberal use of heady incense (the country of Boru is basically a super-decadent, sensualized version of mythic Persia/Arabia). So they cast their spells like Clerics, without having to memorize spells, and their incantations focus on enthralling and pacifying their audience.

BORU SORCERER SPELL LIST

Boru Sorcerers do not require spell books. They select and cast spells in the same manner as Clerics. Note that spells marked with an asterisk ("*") require visual contact with the Sorcerer, and that all Sorcerer spells require the caster have free movement of his limbs.

Level 1
Charm Person* (M1)
Cure Light Wounds (C1)
Faerie Fire (C1)
Protection from Evil (M1)
Sleep* (M1)

Level 2
ESP (M2)
Hold Person* (C2)
Mirror Image (M2)
Phantasmal Force (M2)
Snake Charm* (C2)

Level 3
Cause Blindness* (C3) (Reverse of Cure Blindness; target gets a save to resist)
Charm Monster* (M4)
Confusion* (M4)
Haste (M3)
Protection from Evil, 10' radius (C4)

Level 4
Animate Dead (C4)
Control Temperature, 10' radius (D4)
Cure Serious Wounds (C4)
Neutralize Poison (C4)
Remove Curse (M4)

Level 5
Animate Objects (C6)
Cloudkill (M5) (Requires burning incense.)
Dispel Evil (C5)
Feeblemind* (M5)
Hold Monster* (M5)

Level 6
Geas* (M6)
Projected Image (M6)
Dance (M8)

Level 7
Heal (M9)
Timestop (M9)

The Elementalist is another pure casting class, but like the Dundralin, they have an extremely limited selection of spells. This is to balance out the fact that they have access to some pretty destructive magic at relatively low levels.

ELEMENTALIST SPELL LIST

Elementalists do not require spell books. They select and cast spells in the same manner as Clerics. They cast their magic "wild" in the same manner as Wild Mages.

Level 1

Light (M1)
Magic Missile (M1)
Resist Cold (C1)
Resist Fire (C2)

Level 2

Continual Light (M2)
Fireball (M3)
Heat Metal (D2)
Produce Fire (D2)

Level 3

Call Lightning (D3)
Conjure Elemental (M5)
Create Air (M3)
Water Breathing (D3)

Level 4

Create Water (C4)
Delayed Blast Fireball (M7)
Protection from Lightning (D4)
Wall of Fire (M4)

Level 5

Control Winds (D5)
Move Earth (M6)
Stoneform (M6)
Wall of Stone (M5)

Level 6

Ironform (M7)
Lower Water (M6)
Stone to Flesh (M6)
Wall of Iron (M6)

Level 7

Earthquake (C7)
Explosive Cloud (M8)
Meteor Swarm (M9)
Steelform (M8)

So that's what I've been working on of late. I'm quite happy with how things turned out, and I'm just about ready to slap all my notes together in a PDF and post 'em. Oh, and as of this week we have begun playtesting. :D

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My Uresia conversion philosophy

In approaching adapting Uresia for Classic D&D I resolved to attempt to maintain the simplicity of D&D while keeping the rich, multi-layered setting details of the original setting. This is reflected best in my design of new classes: I simply chopped up the abilities of core classes (using Erin D. Smale's Building the Perfect Class document to generate XP tables as inspiration). Thus, for example, the Elu Pirate has some thief abilities, but is also a competent fighter on par with clerics.

As I posted about before, my only big stumbling block so far has been how to approach magic; I am loathe to develop a whole new system. More thoughts to come.

Balls

I need another item in my "campaigns I want--nay, need--to run" list like I need another hole in the head, but Ken Hite just came along and forced me to add one anyway:

THE GRYPHONS OF CALYFERNE

Cadamosto returned to Portugal in 1456 with staggering news: He had discovered the island of Antilia, far to the west across the Atlantic Ocean. Better yet, he had heard of other islands, rich in spices, gold, and cities -- Hy-Brasil, Cibola, Estotiland, Norumbega -- and greatest of all, the legendary Calyferne, ruled by Amazons and guarded by gryphons! A chain of Indies stretches to the Kingdom of Prester John himself, and to the lands of the Great Cham of Asia, and you have a copy of Cadamosto's map and a ship that will take you west to find them. You are adventurers of the Order of the Golden Fleece; some learned in the wizardly arts, some practiced sailors or sell-swords, all willing to explore these new isles for Prince Henry the Navigator, and for treasures magical and mundane.

Do not be fooled by the cunning historical persiflage above! By old-school fantasy request, this game will feature: beautiful princesses, villainous pirates, aloof elves, clouds of black powder smoke, fearsome dragons, swarthy dwarves, enigmatic glowing gems, leering mandarin-viziers, heaps of gold, alabaster cities, hyena-headed gnolls, subterranean passages, sword-fighting, missing idols, magic rings, cruel giants, and the Mighty Kraken. Plus griffins and California, just like the title says.


He's planning on using a hack of Ars Magica if he runs this. Me, I'd probably go with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, is second choice.

The Emerald Knight: Another D&D/Uresia Class

Uresia, being inspired in part by anime and console RPG conventions, boasts a corps of knights wearing magically-fueled power suits. These "Emerald Knights" roam the land, protecting the weak and innocent and fighting evil wherever they find it. In their emerald-powered mecha-armor. I love this setting.

This is the conversion I'm most unsure about. The Emerald Armor should be powerful, yes, but how to design it in such a way as to not outshine other characters?

In the end, I used the "Glitter Boy" rationale: sure, it's a powerful suit of armor, but it's still just an item. The character can't be in it at all times, it can break down, etc.

Also, like the Glitter Boy, we now have a fantastic new class for solo or small group D&D play, something that's lacking in the core rules (I'm not a big fan of running more than one main character at once--entourage play is one thing, but I'm all about "one character per player").

[ETA: Thanks for the feedback so far! I've made some changes, indicated in bold.)

Emerald Knight

Prime Requisite: Strength and Charisma.
Other Requirements:
Dexterity 9 or greater and Constitution 9 or greater. Must be Lawful.
Experience Bonus:
5% for a Strength score of at least 13, 10% for a Charisma of 13 and a Strength of 17.
Hit Dice:
1d8 per level with Constitution adjustments up to 9th level. Starting at 10th level, +4 hit points per level and Constitution adjustments no longer apply.
Maximum Level:
36
Armor Allowed:
As fighter (plus see below).
Saves: As fighter.
Attack Advancement: As fighter.
Weapon Mastery: As fighter.
Damage:
As fighter. (plus see below).
Special Abilities:

  • The Emerald Knight is granted his own suit of Emerald Armor upon reaching 3rd level. Prior to that point, the Knight is considered a squire, and usually wears conventional armor--low-level knights may by issued with "loaner" suits under extremely extenuating circumstances.

  • Emerald Armor: when wearing Emerald Armor, an Emerald Knight (and only an Emerald Knight) does special damage, gains the Acrobatics ability of the Mystic, and may Climb Walls as a Thief of the same level. The Knight may also Charge, as described on RC154. Furthermore, the Knight's AC improves by 1 every three levels after 3rd (6th, 9th, 12th, and 15th) up to a maximum of -4. See "Emerald Armor" under Equipment for more details.

  • Emerald Knights may employ Fighter Combat Options and Set Spear for Charge (but NOT Lance Attack) as Fighters.

  • At 9th level, the Emerald Knight may choose to either attract followers as a Fighter OR function as a Traveling Knight, as described on RC18.

  • An Emerald Knight must assist anyone who asks for help—with two exceptions: He does not have to help evil characters or achieve evil goals, and if the Knight is on a mission for a higher authority, he can offer only a small amount of help (such as sheltering or advising the person in need of aid), along with an explanation for his refusal. Assistance never involves donations of money or items, but only service for a short time.



Level

Experience

1

0-2,200

2

2,201-4,800

3

4,801-10,000

4

10,001-20,000

5

20,001-40,000

6

40,001-80,000

7

80,001-160,000

8

160,001-320,000

9

320,001-440,000

10

440,001-560,000

11

560,001-680,000

12

680,001-800,000

13

800,001-920,000

14

920,001-1,040,000

15

1,040,001-1,160,000

16

1,160,001-1,280,000

EMERALD ARMOR

This magically powered suit of armor has an AC of 0--it is effectively Suit Armor. They may not be used in combination with a normal shield (see below). Damage from all area effects is reduced by 3 per die rolled. A special visor protects the wearer from gaze attacks.

Due to the armor's size, the wearer may not ride a mount; however, the armor's magical compensation allows the wearer to march all day without fatigue, and only encumbers the wearer as chain mail.

It takes 4 rounds to suit up, or 2 rounds to get out of Emerald Armor.

When worn by an Emerald Knight, the suit does special damage:

  • The Knight may wield a special sword and crystal shield. The sword does 1d10 damage. The shield does not grant any further bonus to AC, but the Knight automatically takes half damage from any spells or attacks (such as fireball or dragon's breath) that allow for a save for half damage (in addition to the damage reduction granted by the suit). If the Knight makes his save anyway, he takes a quarter damage.

  • The Knight may opt to wield a special two-handed sword and no shield. In this case his damage is increased to a roll of two d10 dice, with the highest roll between the two being counted as damage.

Fighting with any weapon not specifically designed to be used by the suit is at -4 to hit and -2 to damage. This goes for magic weapons as well. Note that there are enchanted blades designed to be used by Emerald Armor, but they are exceedingly rare, counted as sacred relics of the Emerald Order.

If the Armor's battery is destroyed or burns out, encumbrance goes up to 1,000 cn and the user can only operate the Armor for 5 combat rounds before becoming fatigued and unable to continue.

Suits have a limited lifespan--their emeralds eventually give out and need to be replaced. After one year of regular use without access to a certified Emerald Armor mage-tech, the DM should roll percentile dice once a month to check for emerald burnout. There is a 1% chance of burnout if the suit is powered by Dreed emeralds; this chance increases to 5% if the emeralds are Laochrian.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Uresia Musings

S. John Ross's Uresia: Grave of Heaven is one of my favorite FRPG settings. For one thing it's got a great mix of high and low fantasy with enough whimsy (I really hate that word...) to place the tongue firmly in cheek without going overboard. But what I really like is that it's a fantasy setting that organically explains the existence of vast rambling underground catacombs! The Skyfall Ruins, buried under the current layer of the remains of the heavens, can contain anything from a buried castle to a vast underground city and anything in between.

Over on the Uresia Yahoo group a few months back, Mr. Ross mentioned the idea of using classic D&D (specifically the Rules Cyclopedia) to run Uresia. I don't know why, but I'd never considered that idea...until then! And then my brain was set alight. It was that, actually, that got me to go back and look at classic D&D again for the first time in years.

Since then I've been sort of incrementally working on some conversion notes for porting Uresia's unique setting into D&D (for an example see below), and I've got quite a bit done but one recurring hang-up for me has been magic.

Magic in Uresia is very specialized. Certain types of magic have certain effects. This suggests a specialized approach to magic, ala AD&D 2e. What's hanging me up is trying to adapt RCD&D's magic system along the lines of the former while still maintaining the simple elegance of the latter.

Was there ever a "specialist" magic system worked up for classic D&D? Should I even go in this direction? Or should I just take a page from the classic "Color of Magic" article from Dragon #200 and just make all spell-casters function as Magic-Users, but with different "special effects" for their spells?

At any rate, here's one of the new character classes I worked up:

Dreed Sporting Chef

Prime Requisite: Intelligence and Charisma.
Other Requirements:
Dexterity 9.
Experience Bonus:
5% for an Intelligence score of at least 13, 10% for a Charisma of 13 and an Intelligence of 17.
Hit Dice:
1d4 per level with Constitution adjustments up to 9th level. Starting at 10th level, +2 hit points per level and Constitution adjustments no longer apply.
Maximum Level:
36
Armor Allowed:
As thief.
Saves: As thief.
Attack Advancement: As thief.
Weapon Mastery: Normal (see below).
Damage:
Special (see below).
Special Abilities:

  • The Sporting Chef gains the skill of Profession (Cooking) for free.

  • God of Cookery: While using any "normal" weapon, the Sporting Chef does a mere 1d4 damage; while wielding food as a weapon (baguette, sausage links, hot soup, etc.), the Sporting Chef does 1d6 damage. Furthermore, the Sporting Chef may use Fighter Weapon Mastery when wielding food items.

  • Additionally, every level the Sporting Chef may add the abilities of Buffet Demon, Connoisseur, Culinary Encyclopedia, Gustatory Focus, Judge Cook, Lightning Chef, and Portable Kitchen, one ability per level (see Uresia for details).

  • At 3rd level, the Sporting Chef begins attracting followers. The first batch of followers (sous chefs) consists of 1d6 retainers, who work for the Chef free of charge and enjoy a +4 bonus to morale. Every other level thereafter, the Chef attracts 1d6 more retainers (apprentices), up to the maximum allowed by his Charisma.

  • At 5th level, the Sporting Chef's damage increases to 1d8 when using food as weapons. Furthermore, the Sporting Chef's food weapons count as +1 weapons for the sole purpose of determining whether the Chef can hit creatures who can only be damaged by magic weapons. At 10th level, the effective bonus is +2, at 15th it increases to +3, and at 20th it increases again to +4.

  • At 9th level, the Sporting Chef becomes an internationally recognized celebrity chef. He enjoys the benefits (and drawbacks) of celebrity, and also attracts an "honor guard" of faithful followers:

1d100

Sporting Chef Follower

01-10

10 mounted knights: 1st-level fighters with field plate, large shield, lance, broad sword, morning star, and heavy war horse with full barding

11-20

10 1st-level elves with chain mail, long sword, long bow, dagger

21-30

15 wardens: 1st-level fighters with scale mail, shield, long sword, spear, long bow

31-40

20 berserkers: 2nd-level fighters with leather armor, shield, battle axe, broad sword, dagger (berserkers receive +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls)

41-65

20 expert archers: 1st-level fighters with studded leather armor, long bows or crossbows (+2 to hit)

66-99

30 infantry: 1st-level fighters with plate mail, body shield, spear, short sword

00

DM's Option (pegasi cavalry, Emerald Knights, Minotaurs, a cooking school's worth of Sporting Chef apprentices, etc.)


Level

Experience

1

0-1,800

2

1,801-3,600

3

3,601-7,200

4

7,201-14,400

5

14,401-30,000

6

30,001-60,000

7

60,001-120,000

8

120,001-240,000

9

240,001-360,000

10

360,001-480,000

11

480,001-600,000

12

600,001-720,000

13

720,001-840,000

14

840,001-960,000

15

960,001-1,080,000

16

1,080,001-1,200,000

Random Campaign Idea

A review was posted over on Jeff's Gameblog for a pretty nifty-looking WWI flying ace RPG. Since I've been in love with that era since I was young, I pretty much have to check it out.

After reading the review I headed out to run a couple errands. On the way back, as my mind was wandering, a single image popped into my head, around which a whole campaign arc manifested itself:

"When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth."

Hell fills up during the First World War, sometime in 1917.

The earth cracks and corpse-demons pour forth from No Man's Land. The opposing forces must put aside their differences and fight the new threat that swiftly threatens to overrun all of Europe. The demons run the range from mindless zombie grunts to fiendish corpses that spew mustard gas from their mouths, to giant flying behemoths (picture a combined "Flying Circus" led by Richthofen and Rickenbacker flying towards a 200' tall corpse-angel made up of thousands of dead servicemen...). They can only be purged by fire, so suit up your flamethrowers and load your airplane MGs with incendiary rounds!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

My Pendragon Campaign: Let Me Show You It

I keep meaning to write about this, but it's such a monumental topic, and I'm so close to it, I keep starting and re-starting this post, trying to find a way to approach it. This is, after all, the first time I'll be writing about this campaign in any sort of detailed way. The best way, I think, is to dive right in, cover what I can in one post, and re-visit the topic to fill in the gaps in future posts. Along the way I'll try to address some of the lessons I've learned during this whole crazy journey. So here goes nothing!

I've been into gaming in a serious sense since 1989. Thanks to reading Dragon Magazine, I already had a fairly good idea of other people's gaming experiences by the time I got a weekly group going in 1992. And one of those experiences that I most wanted to replicate was the "epic campaign". My friends who I gamed with shared this enthusiasm; we wanted that magical experience of seeing characters grow from novices to godlings, to make second- and third-generation characters, to experience a campaign world in all its depth and complexity.

That goal eluded us for nearly 15 years.

It wasn't through lack of trying. Many epic campaign outlines were purchased: "Masks of Nyarlathotep" and "Horror on the Orient Express" for Call of Cthulhu, "Night Below" and "World's Largest Dungeon" for D&D. Attempts were made to run these mega-adventures, but we never got more than, say, 10% into the material before the campaign was derailed.

These derailments were due to a variety of factors. For many years our youthful enthusiasm was to blame--there was simply too much gaming we wanted to do and experience to stick with one campaign for very long. Then there were the usual bugbears that get in the way of any campaign: GM or player burnout, real life stumbling blocks, etc.

(Side tangent: I often compare campaigns to movie scripts. In a given year, many thousands of scripts are written. Of those, only a few hundred will even be read by anyone connected with a production company. Of those, only a few dozen will be seriously considered for purchase. Of those, only a handful will be purchased and "green lighted". Of those, only a handful will be made into a finished movie. Similarly, ask any GM [or player] to jot down their campaign ideas and you'll end up with a laundry list. From that list, perhaps only a half-dozen at best will ever be run, and only one or two of that half-dozen will be run for any great length of time.)

Now, I had purchased King Arthur Pendragon back in the mid-90s, being a big fan of Chaosium and Greg Stafford both. And it had sat on my shelf, admired but never played. Its monumental size was part of the problem--it took me years just to sit down and read the damn thing (I had a copy of the 4th edition, that massive soft-cover tome). Finally, a day spent at the courthouse after being called up for jury duty allowed me to blitz through the two-thirds I hadn't read and finish reading the damn thing. I was ready to run Pendragon!

I ran a couple one-shots over the next couple years, and a sort of mini-campaign for Des, a story focusing on the exploits of an Irish noblewoman. But I wanted to really sink my GMing teeth into that ultimate Pendragon experience: the game was designed for multi-generational story arcs! An epic campaign cried out to be run!

So it was, in July of 2006, I stepped up and volunteered to run Pendragon. If only I'd known what I was getting myself into...

It was an odd time to start a campaign. The 5th edition had just come out; the group made their characters using 4th edition, since it offered more options (and more random goodness--more on that shortly). Looking back, I realize how very little I knew about the incredibly deep setting, or the rich but decidedly old-school rules. We, as a group, sort of lurched our way into the campaign, feeling our way like blind cave fish through the unexplored catacombs of this new game. (Yeah, how's that for a metaphor?)

Things were decidedly goofy. Alex created a knight, Sir Morial, who was sworn to kill Merlin himself. This was his shield:

Photobucket

Yeah. It was that sort of campaign. Yet there were seeds of deeper role-playing already planted. Tim ran a character named Sir Neilyn, a mountain of a man who wielded a double-handed axe yet was gentle and chivalrous and pious, about as close to a typical real-life paladin as you can get. Des ran a character named "Sir" Vivien, a female knight disguised as a man--a hoary trope, to be sure, but one that we'd never visited before. Named in honor of the patroness of her distant cousin Lancelot, the name worked well since it's unisex.

(An interesting demonstration of the changes between 4th and 5th edition can be seen in Vivien's background: when she was created using 4th edition, her homeland of Benoit (or Benwick), on the west coast of France, was listed as having a French culture. And that's how she's always been played by Des, playing up the French stereotypes to the hilt. In the recently-released 5th edition Advanced Character Generation book, characters from western France are now considered "Aquitanian" or effectively British. This makes sense, as such quintessential Arthurian characters as Lancelot and Bors hail from the region. Nevertheless, it leaves Vivien's characterization a bit out in the cold.)

The campaign's tone, and its future, tangibly shifted with the advent of two events about a month into the game. First, Des very kindly purchased The Great Pendragon Campaign for me. Ah, the advantages of having your girlfriend as one of your players! Needless to say, the purchase of the GPC allowed me to really delve into the source material and have a structure upon which to hang the action.

LESSON ONE: Using the GPC has really showed me the importance of having a strong narrative outline in any sort of long-term campaign. This isn't an outline of plot, mind you, just an outline of what's going on in the world year to year. That way, you can have the events of the world occur and allow your characters to interact with that as they will.

That's how the second ingredient in the shift in focus and tone came about: the GPC told me that the great Battle of Badon Hill was due to happen, so larger events imposed themselves upon our little group of provincial knights.

It was at this time that Vivien revealed her true identity to her companions. That revelation, which had been kept secret from the other players as well, signaled that this was more than a game about one-dimensional knights running around and jousting each other.

LESSON TWO: You can get deep, deep roleplaying out of even the most simplistic set-ups. I think people tend to dismiss Pendragon on first look ("You can only play a knight? What's the point?"). Yet there is so much you can do with just that simple set-up; in a way, the more you diverge from Pendragon's basic game, the less it works. Pendragon, I think, is a forebear, if not the direct ancestor, to the current generation of indie games that set out to provide one and only one game-play experience but do it really, really well.

The Battle of Badon Hill was one of the most thrilling experiences in our group's history. Defying the odds, all three PCs survived the epic, three-day battle (this may have been due in part to a slightly hazy understanding of the Battle rules on my part...). There was action, there was drama--with Morial riding in wielding a magical shield to save Neilyn after the latter had been cut off--hit points plummeted, cheers were raised. In short, it was why we game.

Badon Hill marked the transition of the campaign to a more high-powered experience. Looking back, that's not necessarily the direction I would've liked to go, but by that point the campaign had taken on a life of its own.

LESSON THREE: Long-term campaigns are organic creations that tend to push characters and plots in their own directions. The best approach as a GM is to simply go with the flow.

Besides, this was our first campaign in the world of King Arthur, and I think we all wanted to interact with the legendary figures that populate that setting. So things progressed rapidly until all the PCs found themselves with land grants and, eventually, seats on the Round Table. There were adventures through the "Other Side" and a visit to the Grail Castle, where the group helped stave off an assault by the evil Duke Klingsor, they made friends and enemies among the legendary elite of Arthuriana, Morial and Merlin kissed and made up.

And along the way there was romance as well: marking another first for our group, two PCs developed a relationship. Neilyn, who began the game openly bisexual, and Vivien, who was still masquerading as a man, became lovers. And had children. A lot of children. And now Tim is playing his own character's son. Des has retired Vivien and is playing the half-fey offspring of Sir Morial. The arc of Neilyn and Vivien's forbidden love affair became the central dramatic event of the first "volume" of the campaign.

Neilyn was given an earldom in exchange for marrying the Saxon widow of the former earl; Vivien reclaimed her father's lands from the wicked King Claudas of France and was named a Duchess. Neilyn, after siring a son with his wife, passed his title on to his progeny, then retired to spend the rest of his years at Vivien's castle in Benoit, her champion and protector.

Sir Morial's tale was appropriately Arthurian in its tragedy. The seeds of his doom were laid in the very first adventure, when he was enchanted by the witch-queen Elidia. Thus began an "on again, off again" relationship from hell that eventually ended with Elidia manipulating Morial and Neilyn into a duel to the death. Morial had an enchanted blade that would kill the first person it cut; standing before his old friend, Morial removed his chainmail glove and cut his own hand, killing himself. Simultaneously, Elidia was giving birth to Morial's second child with her, and died in childbirth, even as Vivien delivered her third child with Neilyn.

Sound contrived? The births, and their results, had been determined with the roll of the dice. This is one of Pendragon's greatest strengths: it carries the old-school torch of randomness and unpleasant outcomes. Pendragon's combat is deadly, its Passion rules can force your character to do things that are distinctly not beneficial, or even drive your character to madness (another character Alex ran, Sir Peredur, was driven mad by passion and in a fit of anger actually beheaded the lady he was sworn to protect).

Jim over at LotFP wrote in a recent post about how the current iterations of D&D have betrayed the game's sometimes random and deadly roots. I couldn't agree more. Knowing that your character could easily die from a bad roll simply adds drama and tension to the game. A recent example: Neilyn, a knight still at the top of his abilities, was ambushed by raiders while riding pursuit after a recent battle. He took a great spear to the armpit and nearly died. Just like that.

Alex, who was playing a Jewish mystic at the time, was able to heal Neilyn and bring him back from death's door--yet even that came down to dice rolling. Had the dice not cooperated, Neilyn might well have died. The drama and tension during that whole scene were palpable.

Of course, Pendragon also carries the old school torch in its rather byzantine and non-intuitive rules, sub-systems and strange exceptions. (This gets back to my search for the "perfect" FRPG system; I'm looking for something that can deliver that old school brutality, but with the sophistication of design that comes with today's RPGs.)

We have recently embarked upon a new phase of the Pendragon campaign. Neilyn and Vivien have retired. Alex has decided, after many, many years, to take a break from gaming, so we are down to two players. The new characters are gelling and new adventures await. Next month will be two years since we started this campaign; I wouldn't be surprised if it takes another two years of regular play to get to the final Battle of Camlann. I can't wait.

Post-Script: When I was younger I would always draw a character sketch for any character I made. Nowadays, as I find myself GMing most of the time, I occasionally draw a character sketch for one or more of the PCs in my campaigns. This is my sketch of Duchess Vivien; she has begun to grow her hair out after "outing" herself and she wields her father's sword, an ancient Roman cavalry sword. It is probably my favorite character sketch of all time.

There's so much more I could write about: Neilyn's minotaur axe, Morial's love affair with a faerie queen, the campaign against the Roman empire, the feud between Neilyn and Vivien and the Orkney clan, but I will save that all for another time.

I hope this post can serve in some small way to inspire any GMs out there who may want to run an epic campaign to do so. It is a lot of work, and success is far from guaranteed, but if things click the campaign will take on a life of its own and live on in the memory of you and your group forever.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

4e Skills

Looks like I spoke too soon, because I'm actually really enjoying the skills chapter. Go figure.

If there's one thing I think the various editions of D&D have steadily improved on, it's skills.
I realize the OD&D way of doing things really didn't need skills ("...the OD&D approach demands creativity and judgment from the players and the referee, apart from defined rules.") but a nicely defined set of skills I feel makes the game run more smoothly and more consistently and ultimately makes the DM's job easier.

Proficiencies were a step in the right direction, but were kinda, well, wonky, what with being based directly on ability scores and having very little room for growth. It's an oft-expressed opinion that third edition went a bit overboard, presenting us with a laundry list of skills that guaranteed that certain essential but infrequently-used skills (Swimming, for example) would be overlooked until it was too late. The underlying system, however, was solid and offered much room for PC growth and improvement, even if it was tied a bit too closely to leveling up.

Fourth edition gets it juuuuust right, I feel: the skill list has been consolidated (Swimming is now under Athletics, as is Climbing) and focused. Furthermore, the new system of skill checks has been tweaked from third edition, making it less dependent on levels (no more ranks--you're either trained or you're not). I also like how they handle passive skill checks--sneaking past guards just became a bit more challenging, which is always fun. This is definitely a skill system I would consider porting over to just about any other iteration of D&D.

The most pleasant surprise for me so far is the explicit inclusion of guidelines for "monster lore" using one of several Knowledge skills. I'm not sure how 3e handled this, but I don't remember seeing anything addressed up front in the old PHB. Back in our 2e days, my group actually created a proficiency called Monster Knowledge to cover questions of what our characters would know about their foes. I'm glad to see that gray area between total ignorance and "this requires the skills of a sage" finally explicitly covered.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

4e and Art

Still sort of leisurely making my way through the Player's Handbook. Frankly, the most interesting parts are now behind me--races and classes. I make characters based on what sounds fun to play, thus my interest in the races and classes above the feats and combat, rather than "optimal builds", which is probably why 4e isn't really my speed.

Well, that and the art.

I've had issues with the direction of D&D artwork since third edition. I think we're all predisposed to like the art that we remember from when we got into gaming. Gamers who cut their teeth on the Moldvay basic set or first edition AD&D fondly recall Erol Otus and the Daves as the paragon of D&D art. For me it'll always be the power team of Elmore and Easley, particularly their work in the BECMI boxed sets.

The "you are there" style of fantasy illustration that prevailed for about a decade is the kind that really fires my imagination. The art tells a story, and is often set just before or after "the action" which leads the mind to come up with a story for what is about to/has just happened.

It was a long-standing tradition in my group to occasionally base character concepts on Elmore illustrations. Not only concepts, but to actually use the scene in the illustration as a "starting point" for the campaign. For example, we once started a campaign based on this painting, with
one PC as the cleric and the other as the near-dead fighter.

Photobucket


The DM described the giant making his way off through the forest, and it was up to us as the players to decide how we'd found ourselves there.

We've decided to dust off this old chestnut for our first 4e campaign. Des and I will be basing our characters, and the first scene of the campaign, off this drawing:

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Today's art is all about the action--and then some! Cram as much emphatic intensity into a painting, goes the current reasoning. It's a reflection of the age--music is mastered to leave no "open spaces", to be as loud as possible regardless of what the music sounds like. There is little room to breathe; it is an assault on the senses. It goes beyond mere action, which was amply illustrated in old school art (see the classic "Bridge of Sorrows" painting for an example of an action shot that still leaves room to breathe).

I've thought about this before, but I was reminded afresh by someone's effusive praise of 4e's art, particularly one of the splash pieces from the PHB:

Photobucket


In the person's words, "This makes me want to play D&D!"

I just can't relate. The painting is just so crowded, you can barely tell what's going on. Compare it to one of my favorite Keith Parkinson works--this too shows a party of adventurers at the mouth of a dungeon, but evokes a feeling of impending adventure so much more effectively:

Photobucket


There is room to breathe. The figures in the painting are clearly characters with personalities--the gnome trying to sneak off, the human casually grabbing him as if this happens before every dungeon... The characters in the 4e piece look like combat stats given fleshly form--there is nothing to differentiate them from each other besides their kewl powerz. And of course the Parkinson piece features that "you are there" realism that creates a sense of another tangible world--the adventurers have their gear, their battle-worn armor, their scars. And that dungeon entrance! The last Rules Cyclopedia session I ran had a dungeon entrance based on that and I had a blast describing it.

In summary, I'm not saying that 4e art is objectively bad; it just attempts something other than what I'm looking for in fantasy art. It's reflective of my overall views of 4e: more power to the people who look at that and get excited. Me, I'll keep basing my characters off Larry Elmore drawings.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ken Troop discusses D&Di

Who's Ken Troop you may ask? Why, he kindly introduces himself over on the WOTC D&D Insdider boards.

Damage control!

It remains to be seen whether this will be the monumental cock-up that the 3e E-tools debacle turned out to be. I'm an eternal optimist, so I'm hoping they'll get things up and running soon.

Tim, our prospective 4e DM, is even more let down about this than me. We've kept the old group going via chat-based gaming (first using OpenRPG, then Screenmonkey), so D&Di seemed custom-made for us. I'm not sure if Tim is just going to wait on running his game until the virtual gaming table is up and running.

As for my own progress with 4e, I'm sort of meandering through the classes chapter right now. I for one like how they handled the powers, in the context of the game itself. There are some entertaining ones in there (I love the fighter's "Get Over Here!" power--I can just see him grabbing a wizard by the cuff of his robes and chucking him over his shoulder as he runs to shore up a flank.

Erick Wujcik

Via Trollsmyth, it looks like Erick Wujcik has passed away.

The announcement of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis last fall brought a torrent of well-wishers and fans out onto the various blogs and message boards, and I was among them. Mr. Wujcik's games were some of the earliest I ever purchased or played.

Unlike many who have praised his work, my fond memories are not founded in the Amber Diceless RPG, but in his work for Palladium. Many an afternoon as a young adolescent was spent in the worlds of ninjas, superspies, and mutant turtles.

My Palladium phase passed around the same time my Zeppelin phase did, but last year I dusted off Ninjas and Superspies and ran a short campaign for my group. And we had a blast (how could we not, what with a group consisting of a genetically-modified gorilla on the run from the US Army, a rogue demon from the Nine Hells who had taken the form of a young girl, and a cybered-up KGB assassin?). Erick Wujcik had that rare talent of being able to make his enthusiasm shine through whatever project he was working on, to make it rise off the page and infect the reader.

Like many, as a sort of tribute I ran a game of classic D&D the week Gary Gygax died; perhaps it's time to dust off Ninjas & Superspies once again...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Three Tier Model

I work at a major metropolitan library. There's a staff member I see occasionally who seems like the gamer type, but, as always in situations like this, I'm at a bit at a loss on how I might strike up a conversation with him, especially since I tend to only see him in passing a couple times a month. Feels like being a Christian in ancient Rome; perhaps I should draw the shape of a d20 in the sand with my walking stick?

This seems like as good a time as any to lay down my time-tested field guide to gamer geeks. I developed this theory based on my thoughts about recognizing fellow gamers, and how the ones easiest to recognize are often the kind you'd find over on RPG.net's Creepiest Person You've Gamed With thread.

This is the person I would place at the bottom of the third tier. The tiers are organized based on your reaction when you find out the person is a gamer. Third tier types elicit the sort of response along the lines of, "Of course you're into gaming!" They fit the stereotype: either grossly over- or underweight, pallid of skin, greasy of hair, awkward of social skills. I would submit that that third tier is not the most numerous, just the most visible. A topic analyzed ad-naseum in the above thread.

Among celebrity gamers, Patton Oswalt qualifies as third tier.

The second tier is where the majority of gamers, I believe, can be found. These are the folks who, upon first inspection, might not ping the "gamer-dar" but, once you get to know them, can easily be imagined as gamers. Fairly "normal" looking, but maybe with a slight cooky edge to them. I'd place myself in this tier, along with most of the gamers I've known.

Among celebrity gamers, Stephen Colbert is second tier.

The first tier are those gamers who are completely incognito, the ones who totally defy the stereotype. The body-builders, the athletes, etc. By their very nature, it's impossible to tell how many first-tiers there are out there, but it's always a pleasant surprise when you meet one.

Among celebrity gamers, San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan is first tier.

Of course, not everyone falls so neatly into the three categories, but rather seems to sit on the fence. To continue the celebrity comparisons, I'd put Vin Diesel on the border between first and second tier, or Brian Posehn on the boundary between second and third.

Couple thoughts on 4e races

Nothing substantial, mind. Just a couple observations.

Dragonborn
Under the heading "Play a dragonborn if you want..." the very first bullet point is "to look like a dragon".

This made me chuckle, imagining the following dialogue between a player and DM during chargen:

Player: "I'm not really sure what race I want to be. I don't know, I'd like to look like a dragon if possible..."
DM: "Brother, have I got the race for you!"

I mean, I can see it being on the list, but the first item? Like this is something that frequently comes up in discussion? Or that was the primary reason for including the new race in the the PHB?

"Oh lord, if only there was a race in which I could look like a dragon!"

Eladrin
A lot of people are expressing their shock and alarm at the eladrin's fey step ability, some even going so far as to proclaim it "broken". I'm more shocked and alarmed that they decided to include two elf races in the core book. What up with dat? Clearly we're dealing with one or more elf fanboys on the ol' 4e "development team".

The fact that the gnome was bumped to make room for a second elf-type just adds insult to injury...

Friday, June 6, 2008

Thoughts on 4e...so far

Well, thanks to good old Buy.com jumping the gun, I now have in my possession a shiny copy of the fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook (note the new apostrophe).

I'll be honest--I'm no D&D fanboy, but as soon as I had the book out of its cardboard envelope, I had to go to the bathroom, I was so excited. TMI? That's how we're gonna roll around here.

My toilet-oriented reaction is perhaps a bit curious, as I've really been somewhat ambivalent about 4e ever since it was announced last summer. Third edition left me pretty much ice cold, and I've actually been putting a lot of thought into how I can get that "D&D fantasy" experience of old without necessarily going back to those clunky old editions (more on that shortly).

I assiduously avoided 4e-related topics on message boards up until about a month ago, and even then I only browsed them idly. I'm willing to give 4e a chance, but mainly as a player--thus my purchase of solely the PH, which is a first for me over the previous editions (second and third) for which I've purchased core books.

Tim, that eternal D&D fanboy, ordered the three-volume gift set and the new module and promises to run a campaign for us. Which will be quite an accomplishment, as the number of games he has run to completion could be counted on the deformed, two-fingered hand of a Deep One hybrid. We will see.

No, my excited reaction was owing more to the role D&D has played in my life since I first got into this crazy hobby. I watched the D&D cartoon when I were a lad. My first-ever RPG experience was when this weird kid named Sheldon ran me through the solo scenario from the Mentzer boxed set, reading the sections out loud in a sort of collaborative "choose your own adventure" format (I still remember how weirded out I was by the arcane polyhedral dice--in fact, that's about all I remember from that first "session"...that and the rust monster). A couple years later, the Red Box became my first-ever RPG purchase, after my dad drove me all over Albuquerque looking for a place that sold it (we, of course, eventually discovered Wargames West--and that's definitely the subject for another post!).

When I started gaming seriously a couple years later (1992, to be precise), AD&D quickly became a core choice (along with RIFTS) for our piddly little group and remained so for nearly a decade. We played D&D. A lot. Even when we got sick of it. It had a certain...something about it. Something that kept us coming back. Something I still can't define today.

I've been wanting to get back to that certain "something" for some time now. I've tooled around with Castles & Crusades, even ran a couple one-shots with it. I've run a game of Rules Cyclopedia D&D. They get the job done. But my itch has not been scratched!

I think I'm looking for a certain level of sophistication in my FRPG rules these days. That's why I can't simply go back to running, say, 2nd edition AD&D, with its many, many maddening idiosyncrasies. (And don't get me wrong, there was a lot that 2e got right.)

Which leads me to think that for "D&D-style" fantasy I'll either use GURPS Dungeon Fantasy (set in the Wilderlands, natch) or Burning Wheel.

Ah, but this was supposed to be a post about my thoughts on 4e, wasn't it?

Well, I'm about three chapters in. So far it looks interesting. I'm sure tons of folks will have lots of fun with it, and I think its potential as a "gateway" system is much improved over 3e. The only thing that's left me cold so far are the revamped alignments. Just really bizarre, that. The use of "squares" to express movement and distance actually seems like a real old school return to form. The best I could say would be what someone mentioned in a video on YouTube: fourth edition has taken a lot of stuff that has traditionally been implicit about D&D and made it explicit.

For example, 4e unabashedly touts combat and "encounters" as the central facet of the game. I cut my teeth on 2e, the most setting-oriented edition of the bunch, and somehow we still picked up on the emphasis on combat, even though 2e went out of its way to say, "Hey! It's not all about dungeon crawls!"

But yeah, so far I'm looking forward to playing it. And that's about it. More to follow as I make my way through the book and come up with a character for Tim's game.

As if I needed another blog...

I decided to start this puppy up after reading some of the excellent RPG-related blogs out there right now (see links). I have my minis blog to talk about those little guys, and over on LiveJournal I have the Virtual Shoebox to record session summaries for ongoing games, but I realized I don't really have a place to muse about my favorite hobby.

Now I do.

More to come.
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